Yesterday, Jeff Bezos’ held an event to talk about his Blue Moon project. Jeff Foust (over at SpaceNews) provides a nice overview of the event. And for those with the time, here is the entire event’s video.
A couple of things of note — while their is video of the event, the event itself was invite only and not livecast. Also, no questions were taken. This has caused some frustration in the space and journalism world. Anyway...
For those who don’t know, Blue Origin is one of the NewSpace companies. This one was started by Jeff Bezos.
Their first major vehicle that is expect to come to market soon is called the New Shepard. This is a suborbital vehicle, capable of taking humans and payloads to space. It has flown multiple test flights, and during the event, Mr. Bezos stated that the first human carrying flight would happen later this year.
Their second major vehicle is the New Glenn. It is a fully orbital vehicle, designed to launch payloads to orbit. It’s first flight is formally scheduled for 2020. ie next year, although as with any space announcement, YMMV. Additionally, it has it’s first customer, EutalSat. The vehicle’s first stage is reusable, and it’s second stage is expandable. It uses engines developed by Blue Origin, the BE-3 and BE-4. It’s worth noting that this is the same engine that is planned for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. So, that is some background on Blue as a company (and the nickname for them is Blue, not BO)
What we learned
While Blue has talked about their lunar ambitions in the past, and shown a little bit of their lunar lander design, yesterday, we got not just a little CGI of it, but a full mock-up of the vehicle. Additionally, we learned a few key things:
- Blue Moon has been in development for over 3 years. It is to be powered by a new engine, the BE-7. The expectation is that it will test fire the engine this summer. Unlike the Apollo Lunar Lander, Blue Moon uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
- It’s payload capacity in the basic configuration is 3.6 metric tons, and a “stretch tank” version can land 6.5 metric tons on the moon. This means that the stretch tank version could easily include an ascent stage and be human capable. For comparison, the descent stage of the Apollo lunar module had a capacity of approximately 4.5 metric tons
- It’s goal is to be flying by 2024. It’s worth noting that this also matches with the announcement from Vice President Pence about returning to the moon by 2024. Bezos endorsed the goal of returning to the moon by 2024, and stated that they would meet that deadline because they had been working on it for 3 years.
Why is he doing this
Part of the event though was focused not just on the technical capabilities of the vehicle, but on the strategic goals of why Blue Origin to exists. During the event, Mr. Bezos spent a substantial amount of time talking about the need for space settlement — he commented on the range of problems humanity faces by remaining a single planet life-form. These include issues of energy consumption, climate change, population growth, and resource depletion.
Mr Bezos went on to describe his vision, of humanity living in giant space stations (referred to as O’Neil Colonies, after Gerald O’Neil), and how by tapping into the resources of space, humanity could become much better off. He described how the moon, and the building of space infrastructure would help to protect the planet.
The response to this proclamation has run the gambit — Popular Mechanics did a deep dive on the concept of O'Neil colonies, discussing how largely positive the development could be. On the other hand, Vice referred to him as "a post-Earth Capitalist" and stated that humanity and the Earth deserve better, such as the Green New Deal.
What does all this mean? Clearly Blue is making a play for lunar activity, and Bezos wants to make sure that SpaceX and Elon Musk aren’t the only ones in town talking about space development and space settlement. Blue Moon is at least as credible as other lunar proposals coming out of other companies, such as Lockheed Martin.
But what about space settlement? As a space activist, I have been more and more wondering and asking the question is there a role for spaceflight and space activities in something like the Green New Deal (outside of earth monitoring and such)? I personally believe there is, but what exactly, I don’t know. Obviously there has been the long sought after space solar power idea, or space mining, but those tend to be seen in very long term, and far off. But are they?
Here is hoping that Mr. Bezos’ comments spark a new discussion, about how space will play a role in helping us address climate change.